The 2019 minor league season ended less than three weeks ago, yet Arizona Fall League action begins today. The Tigers have seven minor league players earmarked to compete for the Mesa Solar Sox, one of six teams in the MLB-owned developmental league. The young Tigers will also have a familiar face to guide them, as Erie SeaWolves manager Mike Rabelo is the Solar Sox manager this season.
The opening of play on September 18 marks a pretty radical departure in scheduling for the league. Typically, the league begins in October and runs into mid-November.
The change makes good sense when you think about it. Previously, young players who’d put in a full year’s work in the regular season sat on the shelf in September or flew home to spend time with family. Alternately, many spent the interlude at their organizations’ minor league camps before heading back into live action. Now, players come into Arizona Fall League action with a little break since the end of the regular season, but without so much time passing that their timing and rhythm have diminished substantially. They’ll also get to the offseason and much needed rest and recuperation a little earlier.
The change also means that all games in September will be played at night to avoid some of the sweltering late summer heat in the Grand Canyon State.
The Arizona Fall League is a developmental league that features mostly players in the upper minors. Each team has the option of sending two players from levels below Double-A, which occasionally gives us a look at a fast rising prospect. Teams hold a modified draft in August, submitting players and positions, and hammering out the eventual rosters.
Let’s take a look at the Tigers prospects set to open play tonight.
The 20-year-old Paredes is obviously the marquee name from the Tigers’ farm system. He’s currently ranked fifth in the system according to MLB Pipeline. Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch for among all the Tigers’ participants is which position he plays for the Mesa Solar Sox. One expects he’ll be at third base, but if the Tigers still have some commitment to Paredes as a shortstop, one would think he’d continue to get some reps there.
Paredes got off to a slow start in his first full season in Double-A, but that was perfectly understandable as he was competing with players three or four years older. It didn’t take him long to adjust either. Paredes mashed 12 home runs over the season’s final three months and was on a two month-long rampage for the SeaWolves when the season ended. He hit .302, with an .839 OPS in the second half of the season.
Derek Hill and Jose Azocar
Hill and Azocar certainly share a number of similarities beyond the fact that they’re each 23 years old. The two shared center field duties for the Erie SeaWolves this season and their presence in the Arizona Fall League together almost feels like a challenge for one of them to really set himself apart.
Both outfielders are strong defenders capable of playing plus center field. They run and throw well. And each is coming up a major jump in their home run power this season. Yet each retains enough flaws in their offensive profile to keep their stock low despite the strong collection of auxiliary tools.
Hill will continue to be the more intriguing of the pair. Superior plate discipline, and a small but noticeable edge in size, speed, and defensive ability make him the odds on favorite to emerge as the better player in the end. Both players are capable of playing defense in the major leagues as they are. The Tigers will hoping that one of them can take another step with the bat next season. Six weeks of play against a mix of Double-A and Triple-A pitchers might give an inkling as to which of the two has the leg up heading into the 2020 season.
Right-handed starting pitcher Anthony Castro continues to mix a tantalizing blend of stuff with a maddening tendency to melt down for an inning or two. 2019 was still a very impressive year for Castro despite an ERA and FIP combination over 4.00. Castro continues to touch 98 mph with a bit of cutting action to his fourseam fastball, and he made major strides with his slider this year. For most of the season, the slider was a consistent wipeout pitch that pushed his strikeout rate to 26.5 percent at the Double-A level after posting just a 20.2 mark in Advanced-A in 2018.
The fly in the ointment this season was a major bump in his walk rate and some disastrous relief appearances. Most project Castro as a reliever, and potentially a very good one, long-term, so his struggles in relief appearances may seem a red flag, but in fact, most of the results are pretty easy to dismiss.
As part of the most stacked starting rotation in the minor leagues this year, Castro was of much lower priority than Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo and so on. His relief appearances were largely a function of need, and Castro was bounced around in his usage based on team need rather than with an eye to his development. He was never afforded the opportunity to settle into a relief role and begin learning how to prepare himself to go 100 percent in short bursts with minimal preparation.
Castro seems slated to work as a starter for the Solar Sox, but presumably the Tigers are nearing a decision on his future role. His work over the next six weeks may decide the matter.
Just about every team sends a healthy contingent of relievers to Arizona, and the Tigers are no exception. Wladimir Pinto, Alex Lange, and Will Vest will all work out of the Mesa Solar Sox bullpen. Vest stepped in to take the place of Trent Szkutnik, whose season ended with an elbow issue.
Pinto has premium stuff, featuring a high-90’s fastball and an erratic breaking ball that flashes plus at its best. Lange, who came to Detroit from the Cubs organization in the Nick Castellanos trade, is more of a funk and feel style pitcher who features some deception and a fast-developing changeup. The 24-year-old Vest has a decent power sinker, but his breaking ball lags well behind, leaving him out of real consideration as a prospect.
We won’t be tracking daily action over the next six weeks here at Bless You Boys. But we will provide updates to our readership on each players’ progress. The Arizona Fall League isn’t necessarily going to tell us a whole lot about these players that we don’t already know, but the opportunity to pit many of them against experienced competition may give the Tigers a nudge in deciding how they few each players’ future role in the organization.